Printer Friendly

A preliminary look at international students in MSW field placements at nonurban U.S. campuses.

THERE HAS BEEN AN increased emphasis in social work education on the importance of incorporating an international context (Panos, Pettys, Cox, & Jones-Hart, 2004). Despite the growing awareness of the importance of a global perspective in social work education, as evidenced by Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accreditation standards (CSWE, 2008), the number of international students in MSW programs in the United States is quite small. For example, CSWE reported that 405 foreign students were enrolled full-time in American MSW programs in 2002-2003, accounting for only 1.8% of all

MSW students (Lennon, 2005). Rai (2002) reported that 447 master's and doctoral social work students attended 73 different programs over a 2-year period and found only two U.S. schools that enrolled more than 10 students. Thus, most MSW programs appear to have limited experience in dealing with a consistent number of students from other nations.

The authors are colleagues who advise and coordinate in the field practicum sequence at a midsized public university located in a primarily rural state. In the past 4 years, our program enrolled four MSW students from three different countries, representing 2.5% of all students enrolled. Although these students were few in number and often did well in their coursework, faculty members became concerned about the number of issues raised regarding these students' experiences in their field placements. Several barriers seemed to affect their success. For example, it was difficult to find agencies that were a cultural or linguistic match for a particular student, given the lack of agencies in the state that served a diverse consumer population and were also accessible by public transportation. It was also a challenge to manage some of the complexities that students faced when they arrived from other countries and were quickly asked to begin seeing clients in a different, unfamiliar culture. As a result, the authors became interested in how other MSW programs in nonurban areas serve their international students and what strategies are used to assist those students in their field placements.

Literature Review

The literature on international students yields information on many related topics, but there is little research on the success or failure of MSW students from other countries who do field internships in American graduate schools. Literature does exist on the international social work practices of the approximately 1.5 million professional social workers around the world (CSWE, 2005; Norman & Hintze, 2005). Examining variations in social work internationally does point to the differing viewpoints international students might bring as to what constitutes "social work." For example, Norman and Hintze (2005) note the disagreement among international social workers on the meaning of terms such as "clinical practice" and "case management" and the need, in many countries, for social workers to focus primarily on "meeting physical needs, accessing resources, social development and community organization" (p. 566). Additionally, Skolnik, Wayne, and Raskin (1999) reported that only 39% of degrees granted in other nations that are equivalent to the MSW even include a field practicum.

The benefits of cross-national experiential learning to social work programs are addressed by several authors. Lindsey (2005) states that the benefits of international exposure include "increased commitment to peace and international cooperation; greater interest in transnational affairs; greater emphasis on international understanding; and greater empathy of the viewpoints of other nations" (p. 231). Boyle, Nackerud, and Kilpatrick (1999) describe an exchange between an American and a Mexican program and the benefits of such a program to the exchange students, to the community agencies that offered the internships, and to the native-born students enrolled. However, despite the benefits, supporting international students can create challenges. For example, communication and language skills must be addressed comprehensively as they are so central to social work practice; this means that faculty members must be aware of the many components of these skills, including articulation, writing, comprehension, and the ability to pick up (and correctly interpret) non-verbal clues. Rai (2004) explores these distinctions in describing the mistaken belief among some students that raw academic talent will be enough to ensure success without honed, culturally competent communication skills.

Some American social work programs directly address the potential concerns of international students. For example, a number of MSW program Web sites (e.g., the University of Denver's site at http://www.du. edu/socialwork/admission/msw/international student.html) now include information for international students, although most of this material centers on admissions. In another example, the Mandel School at Case Western Reserve set up a program called LINK (Local Inter-National Konnections), which included orientation programs, educational supports, and international awareness efforts (Johnson, 2004).

In summary, there is a paucity of available literature on foreign students' experiences in MSW field placements in the United States, although literature does exist on the benefits of international exchanges and on admissions issues. It is also clear from the literature that social work programs appreciate the value of enrolling international students. For example, Lindsey (2005) states: "For many students who cannot study abroad, it is possible that interaction with students from a different country may, in and of itself, provide valuable learning opportunities for personal and professional development" (p. 247). Given the potential benefits and the lack of research on how to help foreign students to be successful in field internships, we undertook a survey of nonurban MSW programs' experiences with international students.

Method and Results

Information for this article was gathered from three sources: conversations with colleagues on campus and in the New England area, a review of the literature, and an online exploratory survey to which 16 MSW programs from across the country responded. The online sample was selected from the universe of CSWE-accredited MSW programs that are in rural, suburban, and ex-urban areas because the authors wished to gather some preliminary information from programs in locations that resembled their own. A purposive sample netted 70 MSW programs (39% of all CSWE-accredited MSW programs) on nonurban campuses with valid e-mail addresses for the faculty member in charge of field internships. Online questionnaires, developed with software available through our university's Cooperative Extension, were then e-mailed to a field contact person at each of the selected schools. Responses were received from 21 different MSW programs, 30% of the original sample, with 15 respondents from public, and 6 from private, universities. Respondent schools represented a good geographic distribution--5 from the Northeast, 6 from the South, 5 from the Midwest/Plains states, and 5 from the West. Sixteen (76.2%) of the respondents stated they had worked with at least one MSW student from another country within the past 5 years. These 16 respondents with recent hands-on experience became the focus of the data analysis. SPSS 13 was used to examine quantitative data, but because of the small sample size and the preliminary nature of this inquiry, only descriptive qualitative data are reported. The authors (and their MSW student research assistants) used qualitative data analysis, employing data reduction and triangulation strategies, to code responses and develop themes based on the open-ended survey questions (Berg, 2001).

To begin, respondents were asked what they do to determine if international students are prepared for a field placement. Thirteen schools responded that they did not use any special criteria (i.e., they treated their international students like all other students). Three schools said that they did give special attention to language readiness and proficiency before making placement decisions. To assess readiness, these schools used the student's ability to complete coursework successfully (especially in practice classes) as well as their ability to use conversational English. When asked about dealing with an international student who does not appear to be ready for the field, five respondents described using individualized, needs-based planning, including requiring students to withdraw while they take English as a second language (ESL) or conversational English classes; extending the student's program while they obtain experience in a local human services agency; or counseling students to leave the program if they just cannot meet the field requirements. Two schools noted that they are expected to place an international student even if there are concerns about readiness, and one field coordinator said, "I just hope and pray for the best."

Table 1 contains data on the factors that schools take into consideration when making field placement decisions. Respondents were asked if there were any special barriers to finding placements for international students. Some issues cited as complicating placements were language barriers (n=8), transportation barriers (n=9), and cross-cultural issues (n=10).

Language Barriers

Half of the surveyed field personnel noted that spoken English was a barrier in placing students. Even among English speakers, respondents noted that some students missed "nuances and subtleties," which hindered important dialogue. Supervision was described as a challenge because of such language barriers, especially with respect to students' abilities to communicate specific client information and to clearly express self-reflections on their own practice. Strategies used to manage language barriers included carefully selecting and coaching field supervisors to deal with communication issues, assigning the student a mentor, and referrals to tutoring or ESL classes.

Transportation Barriers

Surveyed field personnel were then asked how they dealt with transportation barriers. Nine stated that some transportation issues did arise for students who did not have cars or driver's licenses or were placed where public transportation was unavailable. They tried to handle these issues by placing students within walking distance of the school, by finding placements near bus routes, or by placing students in agencies with another student who had a car. As an example of a transportation barrier, one of the only placements within walking distance of our university is at the local middle school. However, the supervisor at that school had no experience with MSW students from other countries and an international student placed there found navigating the very particular language and subculture of American middle school students to be extremely challenging. This very bright MSW student struggled to complete this placement because there was no available alternative.

Cross-Cultural Issues

The largest number of respondents (n=10) mentioned cross-cultural issues as their main concern, with their most common apprehensions focused on students' abilities to interpret interpersonal dynamics correctly (68.75%) and to understand the roles of social workers in their agency (62.5%). Schools tried to handle these issues by using their field liaisons to address any difficulties during site visits, holding up-front conversations with the student and supervisor about cross-national differences, actively engaging in problem-solving with students and field supervisors regarding their expectations, and framing conversations about differences as a "positive learning opportunity" for all involved.

Only five schools said they offered any special preparation or support to the field supervisors who were taking on an international student. When field personnel were asked what was offered, they noted three things that were especially important: early, open, and frank discussions to help agencies deride whether or not they were ready to take on an international student; assigning international students to field liaisons who had a special sensitivity to international issues; and initiating candid conversations as the benefits and challenges of working with international students became apparent during the school year.

Lastly, questions were asked about what types of nondepartmental support might be available. Fifteen of the 16 schools said that there was general support on their campuses for foreign students and 75% said that their MSW students did avail themselves of such on-campus services. However, when asked specifically how the students were using these services, half of the respondents admitted that they just referred students and did not know "what these programs actually did." One respondent observed it was hard for students to avail themselves of that university's international programs because MSW students were on campus only for part of two days a week. Another respondent mentioned that their MSW students did not find the international programs on campus that helpful because they were dominated by undergraduate science and technology students. When asked whether there were any community resources or supports that might help their international students, 25% of the respondent said they did not know what was available in their local community and 37.5% said they knew nothing was readily available.

In summary, the field coordinators surveyed provided a mixed response about whether international students required additional services. The vast majority (81.25%) said that they did not judge how prepared international students were for fieldwork any differently from how they judged native-born students; however, half then felt that barriers did arise when actually placing international students. Once students were placed, the most commonly mentioned concerns included the need for nuanced language skills in agency practice situations, transportation barriers, and the need for better cross-cultural understanding.


This was a small, exploratory study undertaken to gain information from colleagues at non-metropolitan MSW programs that had field experiences with international students. The limited number of responses makes it clear that these findings are not generalizable. In addition, our sample included only MSW field coordinators and did not include input from any international students or from any agency-based field supervisors. It also did not gather data about students' countries of origin or amount of time students had spent in the United States before enrolling in an MSW program. Thus, this study supplies only one limited perspective on this complex issue.


This project was undertaken because of the authors' desire to improve how we support our program's international students in their MSW field placements. We found very little literature specific to the subject. Additionally, surveyed universities seemed to have no real depth of experience with numerous international students over a sustained period of time. However, by identifying common concerns and sharing the proactive strategies cited by surveyed field coordinators, the authors hope to aid social work educators in their efforts to ensure that international students can maximize their educational opportunities. One tool to accomplish this might be the formation of an online forum for educators to share their experiences and strategies. The aim of such a forum would be to create responsive programs that will enhance cross-cultural understanding among university social work programs, community agencies, and international students.

Several implications for future research emerged from this study. One question is whether a program's being proactive and having a carefully crafted plan to support its international students makes a difference in the quality and perceived success of such a student's field experience. A larger sample, one that included supervisors and international students, would enhance our knowledge about the experiences of international students in the field. And we assumed that being in a nonurban location, with a concurrent lack of access to particular resources, makes a difference, but this assumption may not be accurate. A comparison between urban and nonurban settings might be instructive. Research in any of these areas would increase our knowledge and potentially strengthen the field experience for international students.

Accepted: 03/08


Berg, B. (2001). Qualitative research methods for the social sciences. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Boyle, D., Nackerud, L., & Kilpatrick, A. (1999). The road less traveled: Cross-cultural, international experiential learning. International Social Work, 42, 201-214.

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). (2008). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved November 13, 2008, from http:// E-1776-4175-AC42-65974E96BE66/0/20 08EducationalPolicyandAccreditationStandards.pdf.

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). (2005). International social work degree recognition and evaluation service. CSWE Annual Report (July 1, 2004-June 30, 2005), p. 7. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Johnson, A. (2004). Increasing internationalization in social work programs. International Social Work, 47, 7-23.

Lennon, T. M. (2005). Statistics on social work education in the United States: 2003. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

Lindsey, E. (2005). Study abroad and values development in social work students. Journal of Social Work Education, 41, 229-249.

Norman, J. & Hintze, H. (2005). A sampling of international practice variations. International Social Work, 48, 553-567.

Panos, P. T., Pettys, G. L., Cox, S. E., & Jones-Hart, E. (2004). Survey of international field education placements of accredited social work education programs. Journal of Social Work Education, 40, 467-478.

Rai, G. (2002). Meeting the educational needs of international students. International Social Work, 45, 21-33.

Rai, G. (2004). International fieldwork experience: A survey of U.S. schools. International Social Work, 47, 213-226.

Skolnik, L., Wayne, J., & Raskin, M. (1999). A worldwide view of field education structures and curricula. International Social Work, 42, 471-483.

Sharyn J. Zunz

University of New Hampshire

Karen R. Oil

University of New Hampshire

Sharyn J. Zunz is an associate professor and Karen R. Oil is an assistant professor and field coordinator with the Social Work Department of the University of New Hampshire.

Address corespondence to Sharyn Zunz, University of New Hampshire, Thompson Hall, 105 Main St., Durham, NH 03824-3596; e-mail:
TABLE 1. Criteria Considered in Placing International
Students in Field (n=16)

Criterion n %

Student's personal interest 16 100
Agency's willingness to take an international
 student 14 87.50
Available transportation to site 13 81.25
Agency supervisor willing to learn or already
 has facility in student's language 10 62.50
Student's past experience with population
 being served 7 43.75
COPYRIGHT 2009 Council On Social Work Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:FIELD NOTE; Masters in Social Work
Author:Zunz, Sharyn J.; Oil, Karen R.
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
Previous Article:Can you call it racism? An educational case study and role-play approach.
Next Article:New approaches to generalist field education.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters